The Call to a Certain Amount of Loneliness

loneliness_coverMy post on how your pastor is not your friend has called forth lots of emotions from people.

Some have rightly identified that loneliness is a problem for pastors, and they’re not wrong about that.  I don’t think anyone entering the ministry with eyes wide open will dispute the fact that the call to ministry is, in some ways, a call to embrace a certain amount of loneliness.

By this I don’t mean that depression is to go untreated.  This is a real problem for many service professions, pastors included.  We must take actions to counteract this terrible reality.

And by this I don’t mean that pastors should not have friends or cannot have friends, just that deep, personal friendships should rarely (if ever) be cultivated within the congregation.

I think the solution to combating loneliness within this particular profession is two-fold:

1. Pastors need to find ways to cultivate healthy relationships outside of the parish.

This is difficult to do.  Let’s be honest, many people see the church and the church community as part of their service work in the world.  Choir practice, helping at service opportunities, even sitting on the church board or on the evangelism team are opportunities for them to give to something that is not work or family related.

Pastors are usually not free with their time or energy to invest in something else.  Their focus is on making this particular thing work, and it usually requires the church to be not only their job but also their hobby/service to the world.

It is tough.  If we make it impossible for our pastor to find outside friendships because we expect them to be at everything, especially things happening on Saturdays when the rest of the professional world is largely “off,” then we’re setting them up for burn out and churn out.

Pastors have to have space and time to cultivate relationships outside of the parish.  The parish is not enough for them…will not be enough for them.

2. With all of the above being said, pastors also have to be honest about their role in the lives of people: they are the container of both promise and problem, the dead-end for words that can’t be spoken in other places and to other people, the scapegoat for troubled people’s troubles and the savior for other people desperately seeking something to save them in the world (and this last one is, of course, not a good thing…but it is a reality nonetheless).

In short: the way the pastor is seen in the profession, used in the profession, and abused in the profession will, naturally, lead to a certain amount of loneliness…and unless this is somehow embraced by them it will gnaw at the pastor and eat them up.

And we need not embrace it like a cross to bear, or as something that sets us apart or special or as an object of pity.  Please…as if anyone should seek pity.  And let me be clear: we need not embrace abuse.  Guard your heart and your mind and, yes, your relationships against the wayward person who sees you as the convenient dumping ground for all of their own insecurities and psycho-social issues.

That’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that it should be embraced kind of like your ordination vows, even the difficult ones, are embraced.  In fact, one of the vows we take in the Lutheran Church is not to give illusory hope to others.  Perhaps we, ourselves, need to take that to heart, too.

Illusory hope in this work would be to expect that this profession will provide you with friends.  Your friendship needs will not be met here, even if you seek it out…it will disappoint you.

Embrace it like you embrace the shadow part of your life: you swing punches at it even though you know it’ll always be there.

Wide-eyed, without apology, let us say that a certain amount of loneliness is just a part of this whole gig.

A pastor must do what they must to make sure that it doesn’t take more of a share than it’s supposed to.

2 thoughts on “The Call to a Certain Amount of Loneliness

  1. I appreciate your insights and reflections,Tim. One image that comes to mind is how many of us combat feeling lonely by getting out and spending more time with more people. But then I wonder if maybe what pastors need more of is solitude — a safe container in which to practice listening through reading and journalling, praying and meditating, drawing and painting and sculpting, talking with a spiritual director/mentor/colleague — whatever enables us to touch that part of ourselves that needs to be touched so that it can be heard.

    A question that emerges is, “What do I gain by having friends in the church if I am serving as pastor?” A deep dive into that sort of question takes me to swinging at my shadow — of not feeling loved enough, of wanting to please others in hopes that that will ensure their friendliness and support, fear of being alone (again). More often than not, it is only through falling and failing that I will begin to ask these difficult, poignant questions. And for those of us who struggle to suffer our own foolishness in public, such fallings and failings can be devastating — so much so that we will do all that we can to avoid the public humiliation with such behavior as finger-pointing, isolating, and arguing. Furthering our feeling lonely.

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